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Social History: The Greenbrier, America’s Resort.

Social History: The Greenbrier, America’s Resort. Timeless traditions. Unforgettable experiences.

Over two centuries ago, in fact, more than 230 years, in a valley nestled within the eternal majesty of the Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, a most extraordinary happening occurred – we pampered our first guests. And from that moment, until today, when you enter our grounds you become part of a haven rooted in hospitality and luxury. Welcome to The Greenbrier Resort – America’s Resort since 1778.

Reserve your place in our history today.-where experiences are timeless and memories last forever.



The story of The Greenbrier begins at the sulphur water spring that remains the center of the resort property. It issues forth below the green dome of the white-columned Springhouse that serves as The Greenbrier’s symbol. Since 1778, people have come to “take the waters” to restore their health. In the 19th century, visitors drank and bathed in the sulphur water to cure everything from rheumatism to an upset stomach. Because of the water’s draw, the resort was known as White Sulphur Springs.


Due to its isolated location-along what was then the nation’s western frontier-development proceeded slowly until settlers carved a viable stagecoach route through the densely forested mountains. In the 1830s the resort entered its first period of prominence as politicians, judges, editors, lawyers, diplomats, ministers, planters and merchants-primarily from the southern states-annually congregated at the “village in the wilderness”. They did so only in the summer months because the 2,000 foot elevation offered relief from the heat and humidity down in the lowlands. The resort originally consisted only of cottages and many-for example, Paradise Row, Alabama Row, and Baltimore Row-still stand today. Perhaps the most historic is the Presidents’ Cottage Museum. Before the Civil War, five sitting presidents stayed there demonstrating the resort’s reputation as the favored gathering place for the nation’s most influential and powerful families.

White Sulphur Springs’ well-established status as America’s most fashionable social resort led to the construction of the first large hotel in 1858. It was officially named the Grand Central Hotel, but known to long-time patrons as the Old White. This hotel boasted three stories of porches to catch summer breezes and ample space to promenade one’s stylish attire.

The resort closed during the Civil War. During that conflict, both sides occupied the grounds using the hotel either as a hospital or military headquarters. Shortly after the war’s end, it reopened and the resort’s prospects were incalculably improved with the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. For the next one hundred years, White Sulphur Springs was one of the classic railroad resorts in North America. During that period trains brought visitors from New York, Washington, Richmond, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and scores of points in between.


In 1910, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the historic resort property and embarked upon a major expansion. By 1913 the railroad had added The Greenbrier Hotel (the central section of today’s hotel), a new Mineral Bath Department (the building that includes the grand Indoor Pool) and an 18-hole golf course (now called The Old White Course) designed by the most prominent contemporary golf architect, Charles Blair Macdonald. In 1914, for the first time, the resort-now renamed The Greenbrier-was open year round. That year President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson spent their Easter holiday at The Greenbrier and Joseph and Rose Kennedy traveled down from Boston for their October honeymoon.

Business boomed in the 1920s. The Greenbrier took its place within high society’s traveling network that stretched from Palm Beach, Florida to Newport, Rhode Island. The obsolete Old White Hotel was removed in 1922, which led to a substantial rebuilding of The Greenbrier Hotel in 1930. This refurbishment doubled the number of guest rooms to five hundred. Cleveland architect Philip Small redesigned the hotel’s Main Entrance, and added both the Mount Vernon-inspired Virginia Wing to the south and the signature North Entrance façade. Mr. Small’s design mixed elements from the resort’s Southern historical roots with motifs from the Old White Hotel.


During the Second World War, the United States government enlisted The Greenbrier for two very different uses. First, the State Department leased the hotel for seven months immediately after the U.S. entry into the war. It was used to relocate hundreds of German, Japanese, and Italian diplomats and their families from Washington, D.C. until their exchange for American diplomats similarly stranded overseas was completed. Following that, in September 1942 the U.S. Army purchased The Greenbrier estate, converted the hotel into a two thousand-bed hospital and renamed the facility Ashford General Hospital. In four years 24,148 soldiers were admitted and treated, while the resort served the war effort as a surgical and rehabilitation center. Soldiers were encouraged to use the resort’s entire range of sports and recreation facilities as part of their recuperation process. At the war’s conclusion, the Army closed the hospital.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway reacquired the property from the government in 1946. The company immediately commissioned a comprehensive interior redecoration by the noted designer Dorothy Draper. The origin of The Greenbrier’s distinctive décor goes back to this much-publicized redecoration, at a period when Dorothy Draper was at the peak of her fame. As Architectural Digest described her, she was “a true artist of the design world who became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word, virtually creating the image of the decorator in the popular mind.” She remained the resort’s decorator into the 1960s. Upon her retirement, her protégé Carleton Varney purchased the firm and he continues today as The Greenbrier’s decorating consultant.

When The Greenbrier reopened in 1948, Sam Snead returned as golf pro to the resort where his career had begun in the late 1930s. For two decades in the post war years he traveled the globe at the pinnacle of his lengthy career. More than any other individual Sam Snead established The Greenbrier’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost golf destinations. In later years, he was named Golf Pro Emeritus, a position he held until his death on May 23, 2002.


In the late 1950s, the U.S. government once again approached The Greenbrier for assistance, this time in the construction of an Emergency Relocation Center-a bunker or bomb shelter-to be occupied by the U.S. Congress in case of war. The classified underground facility was built in conjunction with an above ground addition to the hotel, the West Virginia Wing, between 1959 and 1962. For thirty years the facility codenamed Project Greek Island was maintained at a constant state of operational readiness. At any point during those years, one telephone call from officials in Washington, D. C. fearing an imminent attack on the capital would have turned the lavish resort into an active participant in the national defense system. At the end of the Cold War, and prompted by exposure in the press in 1992, the project was terminated and the bunker decommissioned.

In the overt world above the bunker resort life proceeded normally as Jack Nicklaus arrived to redesign the then fifty year old Greenbrier Course, bringing it up to championship standards for the 1979 Ryder Cup Matches. That course was also the site of three PGA Seniors tournaments in the 1980s and the 1994 Solheim Cup competition. In 1999, The Meadows Course evolved when Bob Cupp redesigned, rerouted and upgraded the older Lakeside Course, a project that included the creation a new Golf Academy. Sam Snead’s remarkable career was enshrined when the Golf Club was virtually rebuilt featuring the restaurant bearing his name with museum quality displays of memorabilia from his personal collection.

As the 21st century dawned, attention turned to an extraordinarily ambitious expansion, the largest at The Greenbrier for many decades. The Greenbrier Sporting Club developed selected portions of the resort’s 6,500 acres into neighborhoods of custom-designed homes featuring panoramic views of the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. Membership in the Club includes access to a Tom Fazio-designed golf course, The Snead, as well as a private lodge, spa, exercise facilities, tennis courts, and outdoor pool. Members also have access to all of The Greenbrier’s facilities.

Totally new programs emerged-including the Falconry Academy and the Off-Road Driving School-as the resort reached out to wider audiences looking for unique family vacations. Old favorites at The Greenbrier were updated as well. For example, golf course architect Lester George created a challenging new version of the Old White Course based upon a historic restoration inspired by the original C. B. Macdonald design. That renovation was completed in 2006. The new infinity edge outdoor pool opened for the summer season of 2004, offering a spectacular view of the Allegheny Mountains. Only the porch of Howard’s Creek Lodge, a charming new location for private parties, surpasses that view.


In a surprise announcement on May 7, 2009, Jim Justice-a West Virginia entrepreneur with a long-standing appreciation for The Greenbrier-became the owner of America’s most fabled resort. He purchased it from the CSX Corporation, which, through its predecessor companies the Chessie System, and the C&O Railway, had owned the resort for ninety-nine years.

Mr. Justice turned his considerable energies into plans to revitalize America’s Resort. He immediately presented his vision of a casino like no other, one that would include shops, restaurants and entertainment in a smoke-free environment. Construction began in August 2009, and Carleton Varney was commissioned to extend the legendary “High Style of Dorothy Draper” throughout the new entertainment venue. Casino Club at The Greenbrier opened in grand fashion on July 2, 2010.

Simultaneously, Mr. Justice arranged to relocate a PGA TOUR event with a multi-year contract under the name The Greenbrier Classic. The Greenbrier’s new Golf Pro Emeritus, Tom Watson, flew in to join Mr. Justice for the announcement. The first tournament was held July 26 through August 1, 2010.

The Greenbrier’s complete history is chronicled in great detail supplemented by photographs from the resort’s archives in The History of The Greenbrier: America’s Resort by Dr. Robert S. Conte. Dr. Conte has been the resort’s Resident Historian since 1978. The book is available for purchase in The Greenbrier Shoppe and Newsstand and online at

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